Camping With Care
A Sustainable Approach To Sleeping Outdoors
Every year millions of visitors flock to national parks to take advantage of our country’s natural resources. Folks road trip to get there, camping along the way, or seek out state parks, national forests, or Bureau of Land Management (BLM)-operated land on which they can recreate. Spending time in these wild spaces benefits our mental and physical health, but how good are humans at returning the favor? The truth is, when it comes to land stewardship, our efforts are often found wanting.
In the spirit of a lighter footprint, we’ve created a guide for sustainable camping. Whether you use one, three, or all five tips on your next outdoor adventure, we’re confident this list will make your next trip better for both you and the earth. Here’s how to truly leave no trace.
Avoid Creating New Campsites
While it’s tempting to pitch a tent on the banks of that secluded lake, the one surrounded by wildflowers—resist the urge. Impromptu campsites can eventually merge into “mega sites” that lead to soil erosion, ruined vegetation, altered waterways, algae blooms, or even disrupt delicate ecosystems like cryptobiotic soil.
If you opt for backcountry or dispersed camping, minimize your footprint by keeping your campsite small and confined. Try to look for pre-established sites. (Often as an added bonus there’s already a fire pit.) Leave rocks, trees, and logs alone; dig only when burying human waste. Using your personal camp furniture leaves less of an impact on the environment as well.
In designated campgrounds, use only the National Park Services (NPS) sites or Forest Services (FS), which have been put in place to leave the smallest impact. These sometimes require a permit or reservations in advance, so plan ahead for your trip.
Build Low-Risk Fires
Check with the NPS or FS for campfire bans and current regulations—especially if camping in a dry area. Where fires are permitted, be sure to use existing and designated fire rings/pits. A fire in the backcountry may not be necessary and can do far more harm than good.
Pests and pathogens live in store-bought wood, so opt for finding your own in the wilderness. However, be sure to gather small, non-intact pieces from the forest floor. Even dead logs can be a shelter for small wildlife and insects. If you know you’ll be camping where fallen wood is sparse, however, bring your own or consider skipping the fire.
Choose Sustainable Gear
While outdoor gear may be essential for comfort and safety, it’s important to choose eco-friendly outdoor brands and camping gear that will last. This might mean spending a bit more money upfront, but you’ll save money in the long run. A cheap tent isn’t so cheap if you have to replace it every time you want to camp, and produces more waste in the end. Do a little extra research and pick a high-quality option.
Brands like Patagonia and Prana are leading the way with their pledge to sustainable gear. As the demand for environmentally-conscious equipment increases, so does the supply. We, the consumers, have the power.
Opt For A Zero-Waste Trip
Plastic is popular, used everywhere from packaging to home goods to healthcare. While in some instances its use is unavoidable, keep in mind that almost every piece of plastic ever produced is still on the planet somewhere.
You can do your part by reducing the number of disposable plastics you use while camping. Pack reusable cups, bottles, plates, eco-friendly food containers, and biodegradable trash bags.
If you pack it in, pack it out. Make sure to take any trash produced with you when you vacate a campsite. And to avoid a run-in with wildlife, keep trash and food in a bear-resistant food container (commonly found at most campsites where bears can wander).
If there’s one simple takeaway to remember from this section, it’s this: interactions of any kind between humans and wild animals are not normal and should be avoided.
What may seem cute, fluffy, or huggable is still a wild animal that may feel the need to defend itself against you. Observe from a distance and make sure your flash is off if you take photos. And please, do not feed the animals. Feeding wild animals will encourage them to seek out further interactions with humans, which could result in injuries to either party. And sometimes—particularly in the case of bears—can result in their relocation or euthanization. And while your snacks may be tasty, they’re not natural to anyone but other campers.
Keep unnecessary interactions, noise, and lights to a minimum so animals can be on their way.
Take Care When Cleaning Up
Freshwater is a precious and finite resource, vital to the flora and fauna around us. Because sunscreens, bug repellents, lotions, and more can pollute water, it’s important we reduce our contact with rivers and streams. Avoid swimming, bathing, or washing dishes in the rivers and lakes where you camp.
If you absolutely need to wash something, collect water in a bucket or jug and move at least 200 feet from the shore. When using soap, choose a biodegradable brand and dig a sump hole for discarding the soapy water. Using and packing out unscented wipes is also an eco-friendly option for bathing.
For more information and to read further about conscious camping, visit Leave No Trace’s website. You can also speak with and direct questions to either the NPS or FS in your area for local best practices.
Emma Cunningham is a writer, creative marketing specialist, 500hr yoga instructor, & philanthropist. Now based in Los Angeles, Emma focuses on writing stories & content for brands committed to social & environmental good. Her personal mission is to educate & inspire others to grow more conscious about conserving the planet’s beauty.